American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

Cover image

Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: July 2001
Printing: May 2002
ISBN: 0-380-78903-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 588

Buy at Powell's Books

At the start of American Gods, Shadow is in prison. He's done three years of a sentence of six and is about to get released on parole. He has a wife and a job waiting for him and every hope of getting back to a good life.

None of that happens. The day he's released, he finds out his wife died in a car accident. The job is gone too; it was an offer from his best friend, who died in the same accident. Numb, an ex-con, with no job prospects, he's recruited by a strange man named Wednesday, with the help of a leprechaun named Mad Sweeney, to drive Wednesday around the country, run errands for him, hurt people if absolutely necessary, and hold his vigil if he dies. And that's how Shadow is drawn into the conflict between old gods and young, between the gods that immigrants brought to America from the old world and the flashy new gods of technology and media that America is creating for itself. With native American gods and cultural legends watching around the edges.

I first read American Gods shortly after it came out and before I started writing reviews, so this is a re-read. It's a book I'm glad I re-read before reviewing. The first time I read it, I was thoroughly engrossed and thought it was excellent. This time, I was entertained, but surprised at how slowly it moved, how disconnected it sometimes felt, and how little substance there was to the plot.

Reading American Gods involves spending lots of time with Shadow, and I think one's reactions to this book will vary a lot based on how much one likes him as a character. Shadow is very withdrawn, very detached from the world, and quietly matter-of-fact in how he goes through his life. He's been through some major shocks and has been severed fairly thoroughly from society by three years in prison, and he doesn't reconnect easily. To some readers, such as myself, this comes across as taciturn competence and quiet observation, two things that I greatly enjoy reading about. I liked Shadow, liked reading between the lines for hints at his feelings, and sympathized a lot with his emotional state. But I can easily see an alternative reading that makes him a cipher or, worse, a blank spot in the book into which the reader has to insert themselves. One has to work at seeing Shadow's character and finding some sympathy for the degree to which he stays separate from the world.

American Gods does have a plot, but it's the sort of plot that allows for endless digressions, background stories, and side meetings. In that, it reminded me less of Gaiman's other novels and more of several arcs of Sandman. I think it's worthwhile to think of this less as a novel and more as an extended ramble through the world as Gaiman sees it, full of mythology, stories, quirky people understanding the world in their own ways, and upwellings of the sacred and significant in the most unexpected of places. For example, the holy places of America in American Gods, analogous to the multiple small sacred places and old ruins in Europe, are roadside attractions, via a line of argument that makes much more sense than it has any right to and demonstrates a canny understanding of the expression of American entrepreneurial culture.

As with much Gaiman, reading with Wikipedia or another mythological resource at hand is a good idea. Even if you have a good general knowledge of the most common mythology studied in the US, you probably won't recognize many of the figures Gaiman draws on: Czernobog, for example, or Wisakedjak. Part of the fun of this book is seeing Gaiman humanize them and embed them in modern culture and modern concerns while retaining their mythological edge and strangeness. As any reader of Sandman can tell you, this is one of Gaiman's strengths as a writer, and he does it well here. The bits with the undertakers Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel (Thoth and Anubis) are absolutely brilliant and probably the best sections of the book (although Sam's exchange with the Men in Black is a strong contender).

"Back in my day, we had it all set up. You lined up when you died, and you'd answer for your evil deeds and for your good deeds, and if your evil deeds outweighed a feather, we'd feed your soul and your heart to Ammet, the Eater of Souls."

"He must have eaten a lot of people."

"Not as many as you'd think. It was a really heavy feather. We had it made special. You had to be pretty damn evil to tip the scales on that baby."

Like so much of Gaiman's work, this is the sort of book that contributed a half-dozen quotes to my quote file during my first reading. Gaiman always impresses me by not only managing to portray gods as human without losing the numinous edge, but sustaining that portrayal through very extended contact with the same god.

And despite the interlude with the undertakers, the long interlude in small-town life in Lakeside, and the numerous other digressions and meanderings of a book that's not in much of a hurry to get anywhere, there is a plot and a definite conclusion, and Gaiman has some interesting twists in store at the end of that road. There's a lot of philosophical currents going on under the surface, not all of which cohere, but Gaiman does pull a lot of them together. The resolution can be a bit of an anticlimax, but I think it's a fitting one that's true to the nature of the story.

I didn't enjoy this as much on the second reading as I did on the first. It didn't feel quite as coherent as I'd remembered it, and the meandering pace occasionally made the story feel stretched. But I do like Shadow, I love spending time in Gaiman's head and with his portrayals of deities, and American Gods is a treasure of great quotes. If you enjoy Gaiman's other work and aren't looking for a lot of plot and forward-moving energy, this is definitely recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-11-28

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